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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Let the Explaining Begin!

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page C01

From every corner of the media empire, the explanations come fast and furious:

The Democrats were clueless on moral values. John Kerry was a lousy candidate. A northerner can't win anymore. The Bush team was better at manipulating the press. No one trusts the Democrats on national security. The gay marriage issue badly hurt the party. The Democrats need to move right, or left, or south, or undergo a personality transplant, or change the Constitution so Bill Clinton can run again.


In October, with Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Sen. John McCain, President Bush made a rare appearance in the Air Force One press cabin. A Bush adviser likened reporters to "dangerous zoo animals." (Jason Reed -- Reuters)

_____More Media Notes_____
They Don't Declare: The Vote-Callers Who Lost Their Voice (The Washington Post, Nov 4, 2004)
TV News Plays It Safe, Up to a Point (The Washington Post, Nov 3, 2004)
Campaign '04, Bar Trivia '05 (The Washington Post, Nov 1, 2004)
As the Debates Went, So Went Coverage of the President (The Washington Post, Oct 27, 2004)
Four . . . More . . . Years? (The Washington Post, Oct 25, 2004)
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2004 Campaign

President Bush Photos: Bush Wins
President Bush claims victory after John F. Kerry concedes the 2004 presidential election.
Bush's Speech: Video | Transcript
Kerry's Speech: Video | Transcript
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___ Election Results ___

Exit Polls by State:

 

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Results by State:

 


50 State Election Roundup
Comparison of 2004 and 2000
Amendments Defining Marriage


___ Electee Profiles ___

The New House
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 U.S. President
Updated 2:09 AM ET Precincts:0%
 CandidateVotes % 
  Bush * (R)  60,693,28151% 
  Kerry (D)  57,355,97848% 
  Other  1,107,3931% 
Full ResultsSourceAP

But if 70,000 votes had shifted in Ohio, wouldn't journalists be floating similar theories about President Bush and the Republicans?

"We love doing the death of the parties and the death of great movements," says Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report. "It's just a good, sexy story to say, 'Are the Democrats through?' If we didn't write about process, my God, we'd have to start writing about policy."

Jonah Goldberg of National Review says, "There are three or four days after every election where the clay is still malleable and everyone wants to pound it before it hardens into conventional wisdom. There's this furious battle for everyone to impose their own meaning on the election returns." The less glamorous reality, he says, is that "Bush got more people to the polls and no one thought he could."

Given Bush's comfortable popular-vote victory and the Democratic losses in both houses of Congress, it was inevitable that the media would shift into What It All Means mode after Kerry conceded. The search for cosmic meaning, ultimate truth and second-day headlines is encoded in the journalistic DNA.

What gets "overwritten," says Time's Karen Tumulty, "is whether it was this pollster's advice or that strategist's advice that sunk the guy. It's a story that's just impossible to resist. It is catnip to a political reporter. The gold standard in our business is the untold tale."

But although journalists differ on whether the post-election analyses are overblown, some believe they fell short in one key respect.

"Bush did a very good job of creating some wedge issues on the moral values front," says CBS correspondent John Roberts. "That was a real surprise, something we didn't catch on to until late in the game. We all kind of missed the boat on that."

Journalists "don't understand red-state America," says Newsweek's Howard Fineman. "I'm an indicted co-conspirator. . . . Most people in what is left of the big media live and work in blue-state America, and that shaped our view of the election."

The sudden focus on "family values" comes from the 22 percent of voters in exit polls who named that as their top issue, followed by 20 percent who chose the economy. But as Simon notes, "all that is based on the same flawed exit polls" that journalists are criticizing for a tilt toward Kerry. And how many are willing to tell pollsters that moral values aren't important?

Goldberg, a card-carrying conservative, says that since his side won, it's pundits on the left who are taking their hand-wringing to a higher level: "Liberals need to come up with grand theories. Their explanations are far more existential. They get to be very literary and metaphorical and Freudian and flowery."

Throughout the long season, journalists were viewed very differently by each campaign. The Bush team was a relentlessly disciplined outfit that excelled at returning phone calls but gave reporters little of the whispered sniping or backstage color on which the media thrive. The president did few interviews, in keeping with his record low number of televised news conferences, and advisers objected to fact-checking pieces by major news organizations. His operatives put out releases criticizing individual journalists. Vice President Cheney, who barred New York Times staffers from Air Force Two, called one Times report "outrageous" and said the press is "oftentimes lazy."

In the New Republic, Bush adviser Mark McKinnon likened the media to "dangerous zoo animals."

"We just didn't get the sense that the press was ever going to be our friends," McKinnon says in an interview. "We were not going to get more mileage out of going out to dinner with reporters, hanging out in bars and doing more schmoozing." Citing the botched CBS story on Bush's National Guard service and the Times report on missing Iraqi ammunition, McKinnon says they concluded "that we weren't going to get a lot of breaks."

The Kerry campaign was friendlier to reporters but, for months, more disorganized at responding to queries. Tensions simmered over the summer when the candidate went six weeks without answering questions from his traveling press corps. Endless pieces were written about strategy debates and power struggles within the campaign, often fueled by unnamed aides.

"There was a presumption from August on that Bush would win the election," says Joe Lockhart, one of several Clinton White House veterans hired for the final stretch. "And what comes with that perception is a different way of looking at the candidate and how you cover him. If you think Kerry is going to lose, then if three or four new people are brought in, the story will be written as a staff shakeup out of weakness, as opposed to a strong campaign adding new talent. He was treated as someone who was a long shot."

When Kerry spoke to a group, Lockhart says, he would be depicted as trying to compensate for lack of support. "It's very important in a campaign not to be perceived as a loser," he says.

Now that Kerry is officially a loser, the can-Democrats-survive pieces will fill the headlines for some time, competing only with the Hillary-in-'08 speculation.

Late-Night Lobbying

After Fox News called Ohio for President Bush on Election Night, John Kerry's aides began phoning top executives at the other networks to urge them to hold off, while White House adviser Karl Rove pressed them to join Fox in making the call. CBS, ABC and CNN made no projection in Ohio, and NBC had called Ohio before the Democrats reached the network.

"It's perfectly appropriate to call a network and make that case," says Kerry adviser Howard Wolfson, when "we have a set of facts and figures at our disposal to help them make the right call."

Rove, as first reported by the New York Times, urged Fox analyst Michael Barone after 2 a.m. to persuade Fox to call New Mexico for Bush, which would have given him enough electoral votes to win. "It had no effect at all," says Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody.

After NBC awarded Ohio to Bush, says political director Elizabeth Wilner, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called to say it was "a mistake," and Bush campaign chief Ken Mehlman called to say NBC shouldn't back off its projection. It didn't.

Spokesmen for the other networks say the lobbying changed no minds. "Both campaigns called, and we didn't pay attention to either of them," says CBS News Vice President Linda Mason, citing concern about 250,000 provisional ballots in Ohio.

Answering Kerry

Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto is showing no remorse for an on-air crack about Osama bin Laden wearing a Kerry button that infuriated John Kerry's campaign.

Cavuto told viewers last week that his "thin-skinned" and "humorless critics seem to have selective memory." Recalling all the Democrats he's had on his show, Cavuto dismissed "threats from Democrats who now say they will boycott my show. I say, go ahead. Boycott me. Fair and balanced, I'll continue to invite you, and I'll let my viewers know when you decline -- each and every time you do."


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